From Gold Town to Ghost Town

Blyvooruitzicht, a once prosperous mine town, has become a haven for criminals.  Residents fear for their lives following the closure of the town’s gold mine in 2013.

On Friday Lawyers for Human Rights released a report on Blyvooruitzicht focusing on the “human toll of state and corporate abdication of responsibility in South Africa”.

According to Pule Molefe, a member of the Blyvooruitzicht Residents Committee, the hazards in the town include toxic water, thick mine dust, scrap-metal vandals and gangs of illegal miners.

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Blyvooruitzicht mine shut down in 2013 after running into financial trouble. At the time it was a subsidiary of DRD Gold but was acquired by Randlords Capital in December 2014.

Since the mine was closed no one has come to its assistance, said Molefe. He hoped that the release of the report would pave the way for some help for Blyvooruitzicht’s residents.

“We hope that after this stage, something will be done, that our local municipality and all the other stakeholders will come to the party and listen to our cries,” he said.

The report detailed the impact closing the mine has had on residents and the environment. It focused on the residents’ rights to development, a healthy environment and adequate housing.

Findings from the report said that about 60% of the people interviewed struggled to put food on the table for their families and send their children to school.

Residents also suffered from the effects of radioactive dust, with one of them – Deborah Thompson – saying it could sometimes be like a fog. Constant exposure had caused her frequent migraines, she said.

This was something that Thompson said was likely to happen to other towns if the Department of Mineral Resources turned a blind eye and sided with the mining companies.

Thompson said only a few houses in the town had running water.

She said residents had to use buckets, pots and other containers to collect water from the nearest house with running water – and the water was contaminated.

“We boil the water just to be careful, but we know that doesn’t help,” she said. “We drink it anyway because what else can we do?”

Michael Clements, a representative of Lawyers for Human Rights, said she hoped that the report would be the beginning of dialogue with the various stakeholders involved.

“While it’s important in and of itself because it tells the story of the residents of Blyvooruitzicht for the first time in their own words,” she said. “We see it as the beginning of an advocacy process that we see continuing over the next few months, perhaps years.”

The residents are fighting for basic access to sanitation, clean water and electricity. It is an issue with which the residents say former owner DRD Gold and the Department of Mineral Resources seem to be unwilling to engage. DRD Gold referred questions to subsidiary Blyvoor Gold, which could not be reached for comment.

The department had not responded to a request for comment by the time of going to print.

 Mamokgethi Molopyane, a labour and mining analyst, said Blyvooruitzicht’s condition was a symptom of a well-entrenched trend in the mining sector.

Molopyane said mining companies had always been able to get away with “many wrongs”.

She said this stemmed from the era when mining was a large industry that contributed significantly to the economy. This allowed it to be excused for its wrongs, she said.

Molopyane said that a contributing factor to the lack of government commitment to enforcing legislation applicable to the mining sector was a result of direct or indirect interests that stakeholders within the government agencies had in mining activities.

“Some of the people leading the state in terms of policies happen to be playing both sides and often are left with the dilemma of how they are going to correct themselves,” she said.

Molopyane said it was unacceptable that after so many years, the government still did not have a process in place to deal with the impact of closed mines.

“It’s been 22 years. Surely there has to be a model that reflects on mine closures and builds case studies to try and avoid the same problems in another area,” she said.

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Blyvooruitzicht mine, which went bust under controversial circumstances, applied for liquidation in 2013. It has yet to apply for a certificate of closure for the mine.

Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said Blyvooruitzicht Gold, which owned the mine, had set aside a R44-million fund to assist the community.

However, this money might not be used for that purpose because the company’s creditors take priority during the liquidation process. Eskom is a significant creditor.

Liefferink said the organisation had laid criminal complaints with the police in 2013. The complaints, implicating the directors of Blyvooruitzicht Gold, were endorsed by the Department of Environmental Affairs. There has been no decision on whether to prosecute .

The Randlords Group is seeking to expedite the liquidation because this would result in the mining right lapsing and would absolve the company from any responsibility.

Liefferink said: “This means they will have to reapply [for the mining rights] and that could take another 300 days. There have been two requests for delays and they have been granted by the court.” But there could not be more delays, she said, because without liquidation none of the legal actions taken against Blyvoor Gold could be implemented.

Liefferink said the Department of Mineral Resources had failed the environment, neighbouring mines – which were carrying the cost of pumping and treating the mine water – the communities and municipality.


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